How Ebbinghaus Can Help You Train

Posted by Ellen Simes, Guest Contributor on 1/25/17 12:58 PM
Hermann Ebbinghaus Forgetting CurveHerman Ebbinghaus was a psychologist who, in 1885, applied the scientific method to study how people learn, remember, and forget. As a result of his research, some of the things he developed include the learning curve, the forgetting curve, the Spacing Effect, and the primacy/recency effect. His research was groundbreaking and he was considered a pioneer in memory and learning research. While some of it has since been expanded upon, Ebbinghaus’ theories and data are still used today.

The Learning Curve

Ebbinghaus discovered that when we first learn a new subject or skill we struggle, but the rate at which we acquire knowledge quickly increases as we gain mastery until we reach a point of diminishing returns and eventually level off. This pattern is consistent regardless of what the content or topic is.

For trainers, this means that we need to expect and prepare our learners for an initial struggle and challenges when they learn new terminology and content, such as a disease state. However, once it “clicks” and they have a learning breakthrough, they will make faster progress.

The Forgetting Curve

To understand the workings of the brain, Ebbinghaus experimented on himself. He tested his ability to remember a string of words over different periods of time. He found a consistent pattern to the decline of his ability to recall these words over time. Immediately after the learning event, his recall was 100 percent, but his memory dropped sharply during the first few days and was exponential until it flattened out and he had lost about 80% at around 31 days after the learning event. This is called the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve. 

Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve

For trainers, the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve shows us the following: if we do nothing to reinforce or help our learners remember the content they have been taught, they will forget much of it (roughly 80%) during the first 30 days after a learning event. From time to time, you may see the loss percentage at 30 days quoted as high as 90% due to further studies other researchers have done; however, Ebbinghaus’ original Forgetting Curve showed the loss at ~80% at 31 days. To fight the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve and improve memory as well as ensure that a higher percentage of the content is retained, you need to use tools such as the Spacing Effect (see next paragraph) and incorporate frequent reinforcement activities.  

The Spacing Effect

One way to overcome the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve is the Spacing Effect. If learning is conducted over a period of time with spaces in between the segments, the learner has time to process the material, internalize the information, and is more likely to remember it over time. It’s important to note that the Spacing Effect is not about reviewing information. Reviewing refers to re-presenting of material that the learner was already taught but may have forgotten. In addition, the Spacing Effect isn’t about the value of spending extra time learning a topic. Both re-presenting and spending extra time are good reinforcement techniques; however, the Spacing Effect is only about how to distribute the amount of time available to study one topic or set of materials.

10 Things to Look for In  Training Vendor

For trainers, the Ebbinghaus Spacing Effect is a great rationale for the use of micro learning. Take the curriculum you have to teach and use the Spacing Effect by giving learners the opportunity to master the content in small chunks with spaces in between rather than having to “drink from the firehose” as so commonly happens. Use short videos, podcasts, or brief eLearning modules instead of long ones, to communicate the content and space their delivery over time.

Primacy/Recency Effect

Ebbinghaus is also known for discovering the Primacy/Recency Effect. He studied how memory related to where content was within a presentation, and found that people typically remember the first and last items more than others. This effect was validated by neuroscience, which discovered it could be due to the relative strength of electrical impulses in the brain when our attention is first stimulated (primacy) and when the brain is actively engaged in coding information in short-term memory (recency).

For trainers, this effect can be very useful. It is important to know because the “the stuff in the middle” that we are training people on may not be remembered as well due to this effect and yet it is still important. We need to find different ways and training techniques when we design training to ensure that our learners retain all the information and not just the content at the beginning and the end. Some of the tools we can use to help address this may include a few of Ebbinghaus’ other techniques. In addition, you can use the primacy/recency effect to your advantage in your training design and purposefully position important or critical points at the beginning and end of a training, video, podcast, course, or module.

Ebbinghaus helped us understand a lot about how our learners both gain and retain information. Using his research can help us design more effective training today.

CLD can help you ensure that you are applying these and other important principles that maximize the results of your training. Please contact us for more info!

Topics: eLearning